Chow Town

Trip into the woods rewards with morel mushrooms

After a few hours hunting, Dave Eckert returned with several morel mushrooms and Pheasant Back Mushroom.
After a few hours hunting, Dave Eckert returned with several morel mushrooms and Pheasant Back Mushroom. Special to The Star

Last week, I opined that it was almost time to get out in the woods and gather some ticks — I mean, morels.

This week, your intrepid reporter comes to you with a bag of morels in hand and nary a tick on my person. Yes, that’s right, I spent a few hours hunting one of the most prized finds the Midwest has to offer — morel mushrooms. I’m going to assume if you’re reading this article, you know what a morel is and how delicious they are, so I won’t bore you with any morel minutia.

There are no official government reports on morel harvests like corn or soybeans. But by all accounts, last year produced one of the best crops of the mighty mushrooms in recent, or even long-term memory. Both of my morel hunting experts/friends, along with other fans of the precious fungus I spoke with, told me they had record years. They found morels in droves, pounds and pounds. And, remember, morels can fetch up to $50 a pound.

Morel enthusiast Chad Tillman collected so many mushrooms last year, he was able to trade them for a gourmet meal for him and his wife at Kansas City’s outstanding Blue Stem restaurant. So, how was this year shaping up? Tillman told me the morel season had started slowly, but still held promise. Tillman promised to take me to some of his “honey holes,” spots in the woods that have produced lots of morels in the past. How would they fare this year? I was about to find out.

I met Tillman at his home in Edgerton, Missouri. Armed with plastic bags, a long-sleeved shirt, bug spray and a pocket knife Tillman supplied, we trekked our way into the woods. I promised not to disclose the location as Tillman, like all morel hunters, are zealously protective of their hunting grounds.

Tillman’s territory spans more than 1,200 acres. He says over the past three years, he’s covered just about every inch of it. He’s got a pretty specific hunting technique, which starts with his grabbing a walking stick to help look under leaves and under and around logs. Morels are notorious for hiding.

Tillman also likes to concentrate on areas that are fairly open with good leaf scatter and a downed tree or two. About 15 minutes into the hunt, we hit just such a spot and bingo, we got our first three morels. I saw the first one. He saw the other two, but since he told me in advance whatever we found would be mine to take home, there were no pangs of jealously. Tillman recommends cutting off the morels very close to the ground to give them a better chance of regenerating next year. I was happy to oblige, and happy with the fact that even if this wasn’t one of Tillman’s “honey holes,” I’d already bagged more mushrooms than I usually do all year.

We continued to move through the woods, staying about five to six feet apart to cover more ground. Tillman would pick up the pace in the thicker grass, then slow down and bend over to get closer to the ground in the open areas with the decaying logs and leaves. That, he said, gave him a better “morel-eye view.” He’d spot one or two. I’d spot one or two. We even found some fresh Pheasant Back mushrooms. Tillman said they smelled just like a watermelon rind, and you know what, he was right. They were edible, so into the bag they went.

The hunt went on for the better part of three hours. We covered several miles, hit all of Tillman’s hot spots, attracted thousands of gnats and finished the hunt with about a dozen morels and those aforementioned Pheasant Backs. There were no “honey holes,” no flushes of morels, spots Tillman had described in year’s past where he’d found 30 morels or more. But, there was a lot of conversation, mostly about morels-how to find ‘em, how to cook ‘em, and why Tillman gets such a big kick out of the whole deal.

Tillman said he’s only really gotten serious about morel hunting in the past few years, but he’s definitely hooked. Just two days prior to our walk in the woods, Tillman said he hunted half a day and walked about eight miles. It’s a slow season, he says, and maybe a late one. Tillman believes the morels will be there for the picking, I mean, cutting, into May. I know he’ll be back out, likely more than once. I hope to join him one more time. Even if I don’t, I’ve got a bag of morels waiting in the fridge for consumption this weekend. I’m thinking of dipping them in a whipped egg, coating them with a combination of ground potato chips and pistachios and frying them in my grandmother’s old cast iron skillet.

I’ve got an Austrian Gruner Vetliner chilling in the fridge that should be the perfect accompaniment.

My weekend’s set. Thanks, Chad.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.